A Physical History

I was thinking of calling this post, “I earned my ‘F’, the fuck did you do?”

There was one teacher I used to fight with, back when I was a dance student. She was also the only teacher to push me, to take me seriously as a dancer from the very beginning. I think her modality was that if a student worked hard, pushed themselves, tried to improve, then her role was to be there. This was, and remains a rare experience in more than 20 years of having teachers. The default — in academic and athletic training — is the teacher who only has eyes for beauty, for the good ones, the ones who both look the part (at that moment in time and place) and who are already accomplished. The stars. They shine bright because the teacher holds the spotlight. This teacher though, we shouted at each other in class, which I think was shocking to at least some other students, who’d maybe never even considered pushing back against abusive demands.

I don’t want to say she was abusive though; she did as she’d learned perhaps, and simply wanted to help me improve. When her pedagogy coincided with me neatly, the memory remains for me a good experience: being pushed hard, exceeding one’s self, being rewarded with a “Good!” from the hardest teacher around. I remember her holding me back between classes, those precious 15 minutes when we’d all rush to grab a snack, get changed, catch ourselves from the previous 90 minutes of ballet before the next 90 of contemporary, and making me do the same steps over and over in the vast and empty unlit studio until I got it, or at least began to get it. Giving a shit on her own time. When it didn’t coincide though, it was nasty shit that still unsettles me. I remember why we shouted at each other in front of more than 30 of my year, me at the barre, sweating, in a unitard, nowhere to hide myself, pushing back hard ’cos there was nowhere else to go. Same person. Same people.

The why occurred to me today while I was wobbling and sliding on a half-log of wood, the lower half a semicircle rolling back and forth, and me on top breathing in and raising my arms, breathing out and lowering them, working my voice, back there again, learning, being taught. Before I had to stand on that unstable log, we’d been doing the same exercises, knees ever so slightly bent, and after a year of solid cycling with almost no problems, my knee did that so familiar twinge. This shit’s supposed to be behind me. And we start standing on one leg, waggling the other, a movement I’ve done so, so many times in dance classes back to the beginning, and there’s me, fucking crying.

Yesterday, I read that Dr. Rachel McKinnon won at the 2018 UCI Masters in the track sprint. First on Helen Wyman’s Instagram, then all up in my cycling news. Then I read the pile-on. Because Rachel is a trans woman. I’m holding on to women like Wyman, and Amanda Batty, professional cyclists who stood the fuck up in the moment, and sucked up a torrent of abuse (which is why I bailed from Twitter) to defend Rachel. We’re still so close to the shit I grew up in, which Laverne Cox, when talking about those ‘bathroom bills’ said (paraphrasing here) the purpose of this is to exclude trans women from public life, to erase us.

I described myself as an ex-dancer today, in voice therapy. The why of regarding myself as that currently is to do with this exclusion; the why of my preference for training alone and solitary physicality entirely bound with this. I describe it as ‘potential bullshit’, as in minimising, or reduction of. What bullshit will I have in a dance class? From the teacher, from other students? How do I deal with the changing rooms? How do I balance my need to dance, to be physical, and my selfhood, with a ballet teacher whose life experience has been built on achieving a kind of perfect heteronormativity? I’m just here to dance, but have to drag around a sack of shit in case ‘potential bullshit’ has to be dealt with.

I started serious cycling a few years ago to improve my aerobic endurance, and to deal with those unhappy knees. Which grew immediately into a love of shredding in forests because I am a) a high-speed, high-risk bogan, and b) fucking love forests. Which grew into my currently primary ‘dance’ training, and so much more. And I do it alone because, well, see how Rachel got treated for daring to not fuck off and die. In all this, I did find new things which, you know, cloud, silver lining, etc, like Amanda Batty describing herself as an “insanely competitive, capable and angry racer”, and fuck me do I ever see myself in that, and it’s aspirational.

But there I am, wobbling on half a log, saying to my coach, “Yeah, this is really fucking with my head.” Because of shit I had to swallow, compromises I had to make, in order to both stay with dance (’cos it literally saved my life), and stay with myself, and 20 years later, that still has to be dealt with. I think there’s something in how trans, non-binary, intersex people negotiate physical training, be it dance, sport, singing, playing an instrument — all of which is highly gendered and rigorously enforced — that becomes a sort of chronic abuse and trauma. I want to differentiate this from the default abuse and trauma that pretty much every cis woman, female or feminine-identified dancer or athlete I know of has personally lived through — and all have witnessed and had to work within — which in its mildest from manifests as a bitterness and cynicism towards those early training years, those teachers, and to the practice itself, even while both abuses are indisputably part of the same situation. And another qualification: When I talked about the stars, those accomplished young dancers, I’m not criticising them as dancers or people, or the work they put in: even the ‘natural’ ones worked themselves raw and gave up so much just to be there. I’m criticising the narrative which is addicted to the success story of the naturals, or conversely that of the one who everyone said was talentless but who persevered and made it. There’s still the rest of those 30–something dancers in the studio, and all of us, including those two have their lives and training defined by these fairytale narratives.

So back to the chronic abuse and trauma then. My thinking lately is that for trans, non-binary, intersex people, living one’s selfhood is incessantly hit against by the culture, history, and methodology of training. Training often slides uneasily close to abusive, or not so healthy or good — and all those words are loaded in themselves and weapons as well as descriptors simply because of the terrain they operate in, the implicit meaning and value they are given. Me doing intervals or committing to a long session is agreeing to physical discomfort, suffering, a lot of mental and emotional anguish (of the“Please stop, this isn’t really fun” type), yet I know also it’s part of the process and I enjoy it. This is utterly different from being clad in skin-tight lycra and the associated cultural judgement (of bodies in general but specifically here female or feminine bodies, or those perceived as such) from which there is nowhere to hide, which I had in those years of dance training and potentially every time I go out on my bike. And that is different again from doing the same as a trans or non-binary or intersex person. However I might have lived the last twenty years, every time I step into a training environment, part of the process will be receiving hits for having the body I do, for living my selfhood. I walked away from dance because of this. I train alone because of this.

S.J Norman / Onyx B. Carmine: 2018 Sidney Myer Creative Fellow

So proud of my fam.

Big news!! Its with great pleasure that I wish to announce that I’ve been named a 2018 Sidney Myer Creative Fellow, one among 8 exceptional artists. This prestigious biennial award seeks to provide support to a group of mid-career artists (across all disciplines) and arts workers, who are judged by a panel of national peers as demonstrating the qualities of “outstanding talent and exceptional courage”. I’m honoured to receive this support and recognition of my work, and doubly so to share it with such an outstanding cohort which includes 3 #FirstNations artists: myself, Merindah Donnelly and Jonathan Jones. I was nominated for the fellowship by @emmmwebb and refereed by @hettiperkins, two forces of nature who humble me with their support. My thanks to them, to the Myer foundation and to the panel. 🙌🏼🙏🏽💥🖤💛❤️

What I Was Reading Earlier This Year

This year I haven’t had much enthusiasm to write about what I’m reading. Maybe that’s because I haven’t had much enthusiasm to write long blog posts in general, or because I’ve been a little too negative lately and tend to emphasise the things I haven’t enjoyed in a work over what I have. Some of these books I’ve enjoyed hugely, but can’t muster enough of a cheer to write a whole post about. Perhaps it’s habit. After years of writing about everything I read, my impulse is to say, nah fuck it, that’s enough. Who am I writing this for anyway, besides myself?

So, a small pile of books I read between February and April, alphabetically.

Two from Alastair Reynolds, he of the madness of Revenger, which I also read again during these months. He also of Slow Bullets. He’s best when he writes women as main characters. Chasm City is one of his Revelation Space novels, and I got a kick out of those. Elysium Fire is a sequel to The Prefect. I like Reynolds, in specific instances. Neither of these two really got me. See what I mean about negative?

Barbara Newman’s Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine I’m still plodding through. (like I’m still plodding through Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Capitalism, 18 months later). Good stuff here, of that dense, Germanic mediæval stuff. Not easy reading, hence the plod.

Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate in the World: How Aborigines Made Australia, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? I read immediately post-Naarm. They cover similar ground but are complimentary rather than duplicating. They should be compulsory reading for all Australians, and I felt fucking ashamed at my ignorance reading these. Fucking ashamed. Another reason why I haven’t been writing about reading is if I did on these two, it’d be a long piece of anger against white invasion and genocide and erasing history. And I feel like so much of my life and the lives of friends and acquaintances is full with anger and fear these last years, ’cos it’s far from being over.

Devdutt Pattanaik’s Shikhandi and Other Queer Tales They Don’t Tell You is a rather sweet short collection of reading Hindu mythology for queer and trans stories. I have absolutely no way to evaluate the scholarship of Pattanaik, but still, one of the barely begun tasks is re-finding the diversity of selfhoods in pre-colonised cultures; we’ve always been here.

Fred Grimm’s »Wir wollen eine andere Welt« Jugend in Deutschland 1900-2010: Eine private Geschichte aus Tagebüchern, Briefen, Dokumenten. Zusammengestellt. has been on my shelves for ages. Katrin gave it to me as a present, and I’ve read bits and pieces of it. I’ve a heap of books I’ve never blogged that I didn’t read in the conventional start-to-finish way like this.

JY Yang. I think I read about them on io9, or maybe on one of the Asia-Pacific blogs I read. It was definitely in the context of an article or two on Singapore sci-fi / fantasy / speculative fiction, and coming off reading The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia (which was awesome) so I was vaguely paying attention. I read these in the wrong order, ’cos I liked the cover of The Red Threads of Fortune more than The Black Tides of Heaven. I also liked the former more than the latter, but that’s partly my particular preferences. I seriously love JY Yang and will read anything they write.

I’ve got a whole ’nother stack of books I’ve read since then and not blogged. Maybe doing it like this is the way for me to go for now.

All My NGV National Gallery of Victoria Posts

Keeping things orderly here. Last week of my Naarm / Melbourne trip, Monday 26th March, I got myself along to NGV National Gallery of Victoria for the 2018 Triennial and weird European art.

Image

NGV National Gallery of Victoria — Jizō Bosatsu

I didn’t know where else to put this. It’s far more beautiful standing before it than in my photo. I didn’t photograph much of the NGV’s Asian (or, Not European) collections, and if I’m going to give a whole post to their mediæval art, then this Jizō Bosatsu Bodhisattva from the Kamakura period, 1185–1333 in Japan is contemporary to that.

Image

NGV National Gallery of Victoria — St. George Hare: The Victory of Faith

Giving St. George Hare’s The Victory of Faith (Miserere Domini!) its own special post ’cos it’s lezzie as fuck. Funny how 120 years can turn a piece of racist Orientalism into something ripe with intersectional feminist power. “Yeah, dunno about that, Frances, reckon it’s just 19th century white man porn.”

Gallery

NGV National Gallery of Victoria — Baroque & Rococo Art

A few pieces of European Baroque and Rococo art I saw on my very wrecked, post-season, post-bumpout afternoon in the NGV National Gallery of Victoria. Saw out of chronology, ’cos I saw this stuff before the Mediæval art.

Dispensing with my whinging first, the NGV is one of those difficult museums to photograph in, heaps of light bouncing of old glaze, plates of glass between artwork and mob, all the usual. The works I ended up blogging are the ones I could both photograph reasonably easily and scrubbed up ok in Photoshop.

Art I’m surprised got out of Europe: Giambattista Tiepolo’s The Finding of Moses and The Banquet of Cleopatra. Mattia Preti’s Sophonisba receiving the poison. Especially when there were tiny, not very good Canalettos and tiny, not very good Rubens. I’m spoilt for both of them, pretty much every large-ish museum in north-west Europe has a few Canalettos, the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin alone has a quartet of huge ones, and Rubens, after the surprise of Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes I’m a snob. Rounding out the stash was Derby Porcelain’s The Four Continents.

As usual, a lot of what I photographed was with Medieval POC in mind, and not having much time or energy meant I’m really not representing the NGV so well. It’s not Louvre-sized, probably more like Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België in Brussels. There’s a lot more there than old European art, just that’s it’s also a strange place, and trying to make sense of how Australia sees itself in relation to Europe — not just England or historically to the British Empire, but Europe as a single entity wherein ‘Europe’ in fact denotes the western half only, and how Australia uses the art from that peninsula-continent to create a historical identity for itself … Australia has little to nothing in common with this. It’s part of Asia-Pacific, South-East Asia, Pasifika; it’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land. The idea of the museum, imported from Europe as it was, doesn’t seem capable of acknowledging that.

Gallery

NGV National Gallery of Victoria — 19th & 20th Century Art

A few more pieces of art from Naarm / Melbourne’s NGV National Gallery of Victoria, which I saw on my very wrecked, post-season, post-bumpout afternoon at the end of March. I wasn’t photographing much by this point, mainly grabbing a few I thought Medieval POC would get a kick out of, and very much not trying to document the museum itself. Bits and pieces. And Anguish. I thought of Onyx when I saw that. “Why? Because I’m raked over and bleeding out?” “Nah, ’cos you’re a murder of black crows about to feast on some dainty white lamb flesh.” Or something like that. We’re supposed to identify with the sheep. Fuck that.

Gallery

NGV National Gallery of Victoria — Mediæval Art

A few pieces of European mediæval art I saw on my very wrecked, post-season, post-bumpout afternoon in the NGV National Gallery of Victoria. Considering how long I lived in Naarm / Melbourne, and considering I spent five years across the road at Victorian College of the Arts, I’m pretty sure I went inside a total of maybe once, and that for a special exhibition which I can’t remember — the permanent collection and the building itself I never wandered through. Mainly ’cos I wasn’t into museums then.

So, mediæval European stuff, ’cos I am into it. Weird to go to Australia to see bits and pieces of back home. I was looking for Saint Mauritius (of course), because somehow I got it in my head they have a rather nice painting of him. Didn’t find it. Might not be on display. Didn’t find it on their website either, but that’s a horror to search so … Did find exactly one Biblical Magi / Heilige Drei Könige / Aanbidding der Wijzen (it’s from Antwerpen, let’s go with that last one), very buried in the bottom right corner of a retable, which I shone my phone light on to get some illumination to photograph (then butchered it in Photoshop — is not my best work).

The first room, with the wooden sculptures reminded me of Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu (still one of the best mediæval collections and museums I’ve seen), but the dissonance of German next to Spanish next to Italian next to Flemish made for an odd journey. A small collection, lack of space, prioritising newer art and temporary exhibitions can justify the jumble somewhat, yet it proposes a strange, fantastical idea of the history of Europe, a Europe that is monolithic, singular, consistent. Yeah, I’m spoilt here. I can go to small cities like Magdeburg and see a thousand years of history from just that region of central, northern, Germanic Europe all in the original church, and the depth and detail imparted shapes a massively different reality for Europe’s history.

But still, they have a Hans Memling, some Dürer etchings, and a pile of other works that are pretty solid examples of what was going on in Western Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. The German pieces are solid and heavy and dark; the French all flowing in International Gothic style; the Italian ramping up for the Renaissance. Most of the pieces aren’t brilliant, though pretty much all are solid pieces by renowned artists, and nothing is of the poor, regional copies that litter museums over here. And occasionally there’s a work I’m frankly surprised got out of Europe, which speaks of the kind of money backing the NGV.

Favourite piece? Jaume Cascalls’ St Catherine, from around 1350 in Spain. Not just because she’s my favourite saint, patron of unmarried girls, spinsters, archivists, jurists, librarians, mechanics, scholars, and fucking knife sharpeners.

Image

Panda’s Australian Care Package

As Onyx said, “Oh panda repping the colours! 🖤💛❤️”. Currently reading The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia by Bill Gammage, picked up along with [-o-] t-shirt at Bunjilaka on that last day in Naarm, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?, which was waiting for me when I got back.